Can you make a decision to fall in love? Writer Mandy Len Catron wanted to find out. As Catron writes in a wildly popular New York Times Modern Love column, she told an acquaintance about a technique, developed by psychologist Arthur Aron, in which two strangers ask each other 36 questions of increasing intimacy and then stare into each other’s eyes for four minutes straight. When Aron conducted his study more than two decades ago, two participants fell in love in his lab and later married.
Catron’s acquaintance was game, so that night over beers they started asking each other questions like “Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?” As the evening progressed, the queries became more revealing—“If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know,” for example.
“The questions reminded me of the infamous boiling frog experiment in which the frog doesn’t feel the water getting hotter until it’s too late. With us, because the level of vulnerability increased gradually, I didn’t notice we had entered intimate territory until we were already there, a process that can typically take weeks or months,” Catron wrote.
If you haven’t read the piece yet, you might want to do it now, because a spoiler is coming up.
They fell in love.
Catron makes clear that her experiment wasn’t scientific, since they were both interested enough in each other to do the exercise in the first place. She doesn’t suggest that you can make another person fall in love with you or that chemistry doesn’t matter. Her story, she says, is about “what it means to bother to know someone, which is really a story about what it means to be known.”
We would all love a formula for how to fall in love, and while I don’t think the 36 questions are that, I do think they could be very useful for online daters.
The great thing about internet dating is that it gives us access to people we would have never met otherwise. The tough thing is, it’s hard to establish intimacy in just a few dates. People who meet at work or through school have the advantage of spending time together before the first date. Even people on blind dates share the connection of their mutual friends. In both cases, a bond has been established before you ever enter the coffee shop. But when you meet someone who has been plucked from the ether, you’re very clear that the person sipping that latte, however cute and nice, is a stranger.
I’m not suggesting you try the 36 questions on the first date—that might be a bit much.
But it could be a great exercise for the fourth or fifth date. Shortly, after Catron’s piece ran, Vogue published an account of a newish couple giving the questions a try and subsequently seeing their feelings shift from cautiously interested to smitten.
If you’re already gone on several dates, you’ve clearly established a base level of interest and attraction. But this is also a time when couples can hit a wall. You’ve established your taste in music and how many brothers and sisters you each have. You know the other person’s hometown and college major. You like each other, but you’re not close yet, so it can start to feel like one of those job interviews where the hiring manager keeps bringing you back in to talk to another round of VPs.
At this point, there’s a temptation to bail, figuring that if that magical thing hasn’t happened yet, it probably won’t. But just as online dating has shown us that you don’t need pixie dust to meet a nice person, perhaps the 36 questions reveal that you also don’t need to rely on the universe’s whims to take the relationship to the next level. Maybe we can allow science to help us out on this front, too.
If you’re on the fence about that fifth or sixth date, it might be worth a try. And if you do, please write me and tell me how it goes.
Do you have a question for Sara? Go to saraeckel.com/contact and ask.